Issue 53: May - June 2006 

| author bio

Box Count
Craig Dixon

      "It’s just the same as the others. Empty, for packing. You know, company moving boxes." I twisted the phone cord through my fingers.
      "I don’t get it, Jimmy. Why?"
      Fiona was hearing about my box-on-the-doorstep phenomenon for the first time.
      "Who knows? Who cares?" I was getting used to the boxes. This was the third day. They’d all been placed on my front porch sometime before seven p.m.
      "You know you care. You can’t stand mysteries or surprises." Fiona has known me off and on for five years. The first year we were lovers, and since then she’s been my critical friend, critic and friend, whatever. We were pretty sure that our respective spouses didn’t know of our history together. At least, I was sure anyway. Until this week I’d thought that my marriage to Susan was fairly secure.
      "Well, I’ll save them. I can put them in the garage."
      "Good idea. Practical. Poor Jimmy, such anxieties."
      I picked up on that trace of sympathy, however weak or sarcastic.
      "Why don’t you come over," I said to Fiona. "You could look at the latest box, compare it to the others, check it out with me."
      "We’ve been through this, Jimmy. I’m not checking out anything with you. It sounds like you better resolve things with Susan."
      This was Thursday.
      On Monday my wife had left me. Not with drama and a fight, she’d just left me a note. Every day since then an empty box had arrived on the doorstep while I was out at work.
      I didn’t tell Fiona about the note. She wasn’t mentioned. Maybe I’m wrong but I didn’t think it would make a difference. It wouldn’t persuade her to comfort an abandoned ex-lover neighbor. Most of the time Susan and Fiona are best friends, with occasional vitriolic lapses. That’s when I offer two sympathetic ears.
      On the previous Sunday Susan and I had been at a big party. The whole neighborhood, lounging around someone’s pool. Lots of booze and joking. The only weird thing was Fiona’s stepson. Her husband Greg has custody of his mentally retarded son, Billy, aged twelve. It’s a difficult situation. Fiona wants a child but she’s scared to have one. Greg held the kid on a kind of dog leash near the pool because he can’t swim.
      Susan and I don’t have kids. The problem is my innards not hers. We gave up trying. I’m vocal about the personal freedoms we still have instead. Yeah, right! Like the freedom to walk away from each other? To disappear after leaving a note?
      I’d fallen asleep the minute we came home that Sunday night, and on Monday I was out of the house as usual at the crack of dawn. Susan was either asleep when I blew a kiss to her, or she was making a good pretence of slumber. By now I know not to wake her prematurely. So I didn’t observe any frostiness.
      This week my company’s in a trade show at the Javits Center. I’m in website security. I have to bring in new business to get paid, but I’ve been promised equity. We’ve burned up a lot of venture capital money and this is the ‘make or break’ event for us.
      I really didn’t need the stress of an empty house to come home to, with Susan’s ultimatum on a 3x5 file card. She loves them. Everything gets put on the same sized cards. She says they’re handy for diet flowcharts and stuff. Plus they fit in her purse. I bet she took a supply with her wherever she’s gone.

 I’ll be back when you’ve figured out the latest way you insulted me. If you can’t remember that, you’re too insensitive to bother with any more.
Love S.

      I guessed the Love part was conditional, or maybe as meaningful as ‘I love NY’.
      I ordered in pizza with mushrooms and pepperoni.
      It’s awkward trying to find out where your wife has gone, especially if she’s left home because of something you’ve done, or not done. Susan had gone off before, but only for a long drive to clear the air, to reassess realities, to shop ’til she dropped. But always back the same day or night. She owns so many clothes and pieces of luggage that there were no obvious clues like glaring gaps in the closets.
      By ten p.m. I’d hit a difficult time because I wanted to contact everyone who knows her, but it was getting late to call. Her parents are dead and she has no sibs. I made conversation with a couple of people who would have enjoyed telling me something if they knew anything, without me asking. One of her best friends actually asked me to put Susan on the phone but I said she’d gone to bed with a headache.
      The next morning I had a revelation about where she might be staying. A spa upstate she’d always raved about. For years she’d used the glossy brochure as a bedside coaster where it accumulated moisture rings. It wasn’t there now.
      The local police were very helpful in guiding my thoughts towards positive explanations. I was surprised, considering the images of cynical cops in the media. Hanging up after talking with the duty policewoman, I was convinced nothing bad had happened to Susan.
      The Spa Unsagbar had received lots of good press and was riotously expensive. We’d joked about the German name which meant ‘beyond words’. It was also beyond our budget.
      I wondered what Susan was using for money. We’d maxxed out on everything except my corporate American Express card. She might have found an unused promotional Visa or MasterCard around the house that could be scanned without rejection.
      All day Tuesday at the Javits I answered inane questions without meeting a single qualified prospect. The booth was state-of-the-art and prime space cost a fortune.
      When I got home the second empty box lay on the doorstep. There was no wrapping or label, just the logo from a franchised transport company. Some sort of follow-up clue from Susan? A cockeyed non-verbal message about moving stuff? Hers or mine?
      I’d already called Spa Unsagbar that morning. The policy of these fitness fascists was to take messages.
      "We cannot confirm whether anyone is here...or not here. Privacy is paramount at Unsagbar."
      "But you’ll make sure she gets the message. That is, if she is there with you."
      "Of course, sir."
      "But what if it’s an emergency? Just in case."
      "We will use our discretion, sir. You may leave phone, fax and email contacts with me."
      "What if I come up there?"
      It wasn’t so far away. I figured Susan obviously could make it down and back to leave a box during the day. I’d have enough time in the evening.
      "We still would not confirm whether the lady is a guest."
      It pissed me off that he kept changing ‘my wife’ to ‘the lady’. What the hell, was this guy denying me my marriage?
      There were phone messages from three of Susan’s friends, and one from my mother in Florida. There was absolutely no point in calling my mother, the source of our cash flow for months. She’d tell me I was forty and too thin. She’d remind me what a good provider my father had been––before corporate credit cards.
      Susan could be notoriously unsociable about returning calls, so I just noted these on a 3x5 card and cleared the tape. There were two more messages, from ultra polite collection agents, but we never bother writing those down for each other.
      Mango shrimp from the Chinese takeout.
Wednesday was a blur. I caught a live one at the show, a genuinely needy corporation in deathly fear of hackers. The Tech VP knew our favorite existing customer and he wanted to get set up immediately. I made arrangements to meet him for dinner. Over splendid salmon, voluptuous veal and childhood-invoking chocolate cake we agreed that his company’s team of code crunchers would get a demo at our booth the next day.
      I really wanted to share this news of even a tentative sale with Susan. Around six p.m. I tried the Spa again, figuring that I’d get someone different. I did, but he was reading from the same script.
      When I arrived home, there was another box on the doorstep. Maybe it was some sort of clue to my insulting behavior that had driven Susan away, but an intelligent connection didn’t spring to mind. ‘Empty Soul’ or ‘Cardboard Heart’? I figured I just had to physically be at the house when Susan delivered the box. I read her note for the umpteenth time.
      Also, I wanted to supervise a house clean-up team that I could pay for on the corporate card through our concierge service.
      My boss, Dudley, had phoned.
      Before I returned the call I rehearsed my plea for immediate time off and then I reached him at home.
      "Are you kidding?" He was spluttering. It reminded me of the only time I’d got jocular with him and called him Dud.
      "It’s the only chance for your office, Jimmy baby," he said, after denying my request. "Hell, man, I put you in charge of the Northeast. That trade show is the last shot. Of course there’s nobody else who could do it. You want me to trust some hired booth bimbo, shaking her implants at horny techies?"
      In less stressful times I would have said yes, joking with him, but this was crunch time for Dudley and me. He’d personally signed off on the loans, and I hadn’t seen a paycheck in almost a year. We were both surviving on the long-term hope of lucrative stock options after some future public offering.
      The man would not want to know about Susan enjoying Spa Unsagbar. He would probably have something to say about empty boxes though. Something similar to the message that I assumed Susan was leaving for me, something goofy, like "You’re empty, you’re rectangular and inanimate, you should move out."
      Dudley might have enjoyed the story of Fiona, my philandering fling of four years ago. But I hadn’t been dumb enough to confide. Fiona used sex as a weapon. Somehow I was proud of knowing this. It had made our games more fun, our suburb more exciting. At least it did for me, I don’t know about her.
      Anyway, Dudley is gay. I didn’t want to think about his sex-as-weapon problems. And I had to deal with the guy, seriously, no jokes, banter or buddy stuff. He was right. I needed to be there at the show; this week was key.
      Dudley certainly would not want to know about our Aunt Gretchen from Cleveland. Aunt Gretchen, Susan’s only living relative in the whole wide world, was about to make her annual inspection tour of the Susan/Jim household starting this Friday evening.
      Weekend Aunt Gretchen Requirements: red carpet, house spick and span, heavy duty cooking. And this year no hostess in sight.
      Aunt Gretchen is a municipal child abuse investigator. She’s someone I admire and enjoy entertaining. I’m also slightly in awe of her. If I called her to cancel, she’d just be nosy and arrive earlier.
      Susan is a responsible person, prompt about all obligations except bills and returning phone calls. Surely she wouldn’t have forgotten the upcoming visit. I assumed that she’d be coming back home on Friday morning. Susan would at least communicate with me, or with her aunt, or both of us. That’s what I hoped, willed, and wished upon a star.
      On Thursday I got organized. The clean-up crew was hired for early the next morning, and they guaranteed to be finished by eleven. Short notice, double-sized team, but they accepted the Amex card.
      The corporate prospect sent in his guys to the Javits. We made a good demo, and I felt confident about nailing the deal.
      As I’d made the decision to take off Friday, it was critical to arrange coverage for the booth. I gave our three most presentable office staff a quick lesson in meeting and greeting. This would be blanket coverage for the show, and I promised them superior performance reviews.
      Dudley screamed and threatened, but I was firm. A rare win for family values over crass commercial considerations.
      When I got home that night I was actually happy to see the latest box on the doorstep. This was the evening I weakened, called Fiona and she’d sensibly refused to come over and comfort me. I asked her how things were going with Greg, and she deflected me.
      "I don’t think this is the time for an analysis of my marriage, Jim."
      I plowed on. "It’s kind of like ‘assisted living’, isn’t it."
      "That’s really amusing." I could imagine her lip curling as she said it. "Your marriage or mine?"
      "Good question. I guess I mean mine, since you don’t answer questions about yours these days."
      I was on the kitchen phone, flipping through a book of recipes looking for something simple. "I feel that I know you so well. I can talk to you about anything. We should meet somewhere, right now." Apart from being with her, the idea of eating out was appealing.
      She cut me off. "You wouldn’t like my answers to your questions anyway. I have to go. It’s my turn to read Billy his bedtime story."
      Her mention of Billy made me realize there was a similarity in our marriages. It was unsettling to think of the wives commiserating with each other. Both so badly wanted to procreate. Fiona didn’t dare get pregnant because of Greg’s faulty genes. Susan was so desperate that right now she might be frolicking with some athletic Aryan -- in between trips back to our homestead to deposit moving boxes for me. Me, who would be happy with either or both ladies.
      The mail was all bills and brochures. I dealt with Susan’s messages. There was nothing for me. Dudley had phoned and hissed his ultimatum already.
      I thought that I’d remembered from college days how to make an omelet. Ah well, the clean-up crew would deal with the yolky splatter. I found some ham-enhanced split pea soup and the can opener.
      Friday brought a bright clear day and the weather forecast predicted a great weekend. By eleven, the cleaners’ trucks had pulled out. The house smelled minty. There were fresh flowers in the vases, and every environmental surface was tidy and sparkling clean.
      By noon I’d been fired––by phone. Dudley didn’t want to hear my plea that the last day of a trade show was dead time. He didn’t care that my bright new prospect was nearly in the bag. And he was deaf to my praises of the social skills of the staff I’d sent over to the Javits Center.
      By two o’clock in the afternoon I was so impatient I was talking back to the moronic soap opera characters on the TV in my living room. Ironically, I had answers for all their problems.
      The only activity in the street was Fiona’s stepson, Billy, riding his bike with the training wheels. Round and round the cul-de sac he went. I could see the saliva glistening on his big wet grin. The kid waved vigorously to me every time I went outside to see if a new box was on the step.
      I called the Germans. "Sir, how could we tell you if someone has checked out if we can not confirm whether the lady was staying here at all?" Unassailable logic, but it did not endear the Spa staff to me.
      I mowed the lawn. I’d even considered hiring young Billy for this task so I could listen for the phone, but I thought we might end up with grassy crop circles.
      At five p.m. a taxi turned into the driveway. Aunt Gretchen had arrived. She gave me a quick peck and a frown.
      "Hello, you wretched man." She shook her finger at me. "I know. Susan called me. She’ll be here at seven." I sighed, smiling.
      "What’s the smell in here, toothpaste?" Aunt Gretchen wrinkled her nose. "Open some windows will you. We have two hours to figure out that insult."
      "Oh. She didn’t tell it to you?" This was fiendish. Every week they talked for an hour or more.
      "That would make it too easy for you, Jim. She’s pretty mad."
      I nodded and made some coffee. Making coffee is one of my well-honed household skills. Aunt Gretchen settled into the chair that I usually use.
      "Let’s start with every conversation you had with Susan over the last month."
      I groaned.
      "And with anyone else in her presence."
      "Or where Susan might have overheard you, even though you didn’t see her."
      This was worse than Dudley doing employee exit interviews.
      By six pm I was standing looking out at the street, watching Fiona’s husband Greg drag his screaming son home by the handlebars. Aunt Gretchen and I had recapped most of the conversations. Not a clue.
      "So you don’t like being home alone, hey, Jimbo?"
      "No. I really miss her. It’s like an ache." I filled up her coffee mug.
      Aunt Gretchen patted my shoulder as she went past me to get more sugar.
      "OK, Jim, I’ll admit it. I do know the insult."
      "Ah ha!"
      "But you still have to guess it."
      "How? We’ve..."
      "Well, it’s in the conversations. We’ve covered it. I’ll do the hot and cold game thing with you."
      Susan would be proud of her.
      It turned out to be something I’d said at the pool party. I’d been in a small group that included Fiona. Susan had been nearby. Fiona and I had been discussing Rio beaches. The talk had come around to Brazilian bikinis called dental floss or something. Fiona claimed that she had a couple, and I said that Susan would never wear such a thing/thong, whatever.
      "Please note," I said to Aunt Gretchen, "I did not say that Susan couldn’t wear such a thing."
      "Damage done, my friend. You were dog doo after that."
      We rambled on about cellulite, middle age and other riveting topics and at seven Susan’s car pulled in. I hurried out and opened the car door for her.
      "You look SUPER... and you could go Brazilian any time!"
      "Hah." She snorted, throwing back her hair as she got out of the car. "Bet she had to tell you."
      We walked to the front door. "Do I really look super? You mean, like different?"
      "You certainly do."
      I was sincere but avoided volunteering specifics. Finding out what constituted a Susan-directed insult had wrecked my confidence in my powers of observation and sensitivity. Not totally though. Hey, I’d picked up on her need for my approval.
      "Yes, you look really great." I took the grocery bags out of her trunk.
      "Well, it cost a bundle. The new Visa card worked when I arrived, but not at check out. And I wasn’t about to give them my only cash. That was for tips, gas and these groceries."
      "What did you do?" I hoisted the last bag Here we were working together on something, even if it was just unloading the car.
      "Gave them all your company information and said you’d be in touch." She grinned at me. We were companions, conspirators against cruel creditors.
      I gulped, nodding bravely. This was not the right moment to tell her about my job loss.
      "I really didn’t give a shit." She shrugged. "I mean, what were they going to do? Tie me down and give me back the fat?"
      "Good for you." I hugged her and we went into the house.
      I made strong gin and tonics. We caught up on news, swapping war stories, battles of work and workouts. I plucked up courage and told them I’d been fired. It was easier to say with Aunt Gretchen there. Incredibly, she and Susan both laughed.
      They reminded me that this was by no means the first time.
      "Dudley will do his usual whine, whine, whine. He’ll call this Sunday evening, during 60 Minutes, all groveling, and calling you ‘Jimmy baby’. Yuck!" Susan puckered her lips. "And you’ll lap it up. Anyway, he’ll need you to follow up on that new prospect you were just telling us about."
      They were right. Deep down I’d known this even during Show week, but I probably wanted to feel sorry for myself.
      Susan reclaimed her kitchen territory and admired the flowers.
      "Here, Jim. I know you can do this." She handed me a bottle of Australian Shiraz. "Open it, so that it can breathe properly before we eat."
      "Okay." I peeled off the foil wrapper around the top of the bottle. "By the way, I have a question."
      Susan looked a bit wary. I wondered if I should have waited until after dinner.  "Yes?" she said.
      "What was with the boxes?" I smiled.
      "What boxes?"
      "You know. The empty moving boxes on the doorstep each day." She looked blankly at me. "They’re in the garage now."
      "Why’re you asking me?"
      "You brought them, didn’t you?"
      "No, of course not. Remember, I was upstate being tortured by nubile Nazis!"
      Aunt Gretchen chuckled. Then she looked as puzzled as Susan.
      "Come on, it was..."
      "No. Really, Jim. Wait a minute though... are the boxes from National Packhorse?"
      "Yes. So you know about them?"
      "It’s that kid! Billy. Last week he dropped boxes at the Corrigan’s and the week before at Kutsky’s. He’s sort of obsessive about them."
      "You’re kidding." I wanted to believe her, but why wouldn’t Fiona have told me? If only to remind me again that Billy was just her stepson. I mentioned to Susan that there’d been no box on Friday and that Billy had been riding around near our house.
      She said, "You must have jinxed him by being here."
      "Seriously," Susan continued. "It’s really driving Fiona crazy. She and Greg are putting their house on the market, you know." She looked intently at me.
      "I didn’t know that. They’re moving?" The room felt very cold even though there was a pork loin roasting in the oven. Susan’s stare seemed to be focused on my forehead. "Are you sure, darling?"
      "Yeah, I guess Fiona didn’t share that with you, huh? Greg got a job in Akron."
      "Akron? Akron, Ohio?" I looked out the window.
      "And he doesn’t know it yet, but she isn’t going with them." Susan jiggled the ice in her drink and winked at Aunt Gretchen.
      "Yes. Fiona’s going to start a new life… in an ‘undisclosed location’."
      "No. Really?"
      "She wants to be a Mom before it’s too late."

© Craig Dixon  2006

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author bio
craig dixonCraig Dixon emigrated from a mining village in Sherwood Forest. He lives in New York. Early in his career he worked as a travel agent and tour leader before becoming a financial services broker. These days he is an inveterate volunteer, happily and chronically unfocused. During his investment life he traveled for aid agencies that created commodity exchanges in Eastern Europe and Central America. With the Trickle Up Program he started micro-enterprises in Africa, India and some South Sea islands. He originated greeting cards for pets and imported a folding boat called the Pac-a-Punt.
      His first creative writing experience was at a Gotham Workshop, scribbling thoughts about a tomato for ten minutes without stopping. He imagines the experience might have been like the restoration of a lost sense or instant fluency in a foreign tongue.
      He is the author of Notes by a Nomad, a slim volume of travel vignettes. It was published in 2001 and is available at www.amazon.com. Several of his stories are posted on the Amazon Shorts Program.
      Contact the author

Issue 53: May - June 2006  

f i c t i o n

Helen Simpson: Every Third Thought
Josip Novakovich: Night Guests
Rattawut Lapcharoensap: At the Café Lovely
Craig Dixon: Box Count
David Ramos Fernandes: Blossom

picks from back issues

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women and Dancing With Fidel
Des Dillon: The Blue Hen

q u i z

Animals in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz:
American Lit and Culture of the1960s

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford
The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
TBR Archives  (by issue)

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